Opinion
July 9, 2012

Growing pains: Nunavut’s decade of difficult development

Launched with so much optimism ten years ago, the government of Nunavut is now in the adolescent stage of its transition to full provincial status. After living as an official territory with the right to self-government and self-determination through a public government system, the ten-year anniversary offers the opportunity to reflect on how the Nunavummiut are faring under this new governance.

As a starting point, readers should recall that Nunavut is unevenly governed by a consensus style of government that is anchored around four organizing principles: creating healthy communities, encouraging public participation, recognizing the importance of self-reliance, and emphasizing the importance of lifelong learning. More than 85 percent of those that make Nunavut home are Inuit, the vast majority of whom speak Inuktitut as a first language and, to a various degree, follow traditional or incorporate aspects of the semi-nomadic lifestyle of their people.

In terms of geography, Nunavut occupies a vast two million square kilometers of territory in the northeast corner of Canada. Its 32,000 inhabitants are spread among 26 communities that range in population from five to more than 6,000 and are spread thousands of kilometers apart. Given the harshness of the climate and the dispersion of the population, it is not surprising that the annual budget to govern the territory is more than $1 billion, equivalent to more than $30,000 on a per capita basis.  

In recognition of this important anniversary, the Nunavut government sponsored, earlier this year, a territory-wide study that was designed to review their “programs, spending, hiring, and respect for Inuit culture and values.” The study objectives were very ambitious and, as a consequence, sought the views of all the citizens of Nunavut by collecting information in informal gatherings with organizations and individuals as well as from more formal public meetings in each community.  An online survey and citizen participation in phone-in shows further supplemented this effort. After compiling the information from these diverse sources, the authors submitted a report card with recommendations to the Government of Nunavut on October 1.

The report contains some stark and disturbing findings about the state of affairs in this fledgling territory. As a general observation, the overall consensus is that “poverty, overcrowded housing, alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, and mental health dominate the community landscape.”  Moreover, at a time where there is so much need, respondents expressed the view that government “never seemed more distant…and the communication with their government is very poor.”  

As a further observation, the Nunavummiut strongly felt that few people currently have jobs that mirror the “standards of a modern wage economy.” And finally, respondents across Nunavut zeroed in on the plight of young people by expressing their “distress over the high drop out rates from school, the quality of the K-12 education programs, and the limited post-secondary offerings.” 

With respect to the workings of the public service, the general view appears to be that departments are “severely underpowered and many key personnel are overworked because there is a large cohort of people who lack the skills to adequately do their jobs.”   

Based on these powerful assessments of the current situation, it seems abundantly clear that the massive effort to transfer power, responsibility and accountabilities to the Nunavut government has failed to meet the high expectations of its citizenry. Moreover, the consensus among residents is that the social and economic well being of the Nunavummiut is not improving in any material way. Despite the considerable financial injection into this Northern territory, there is overwhelming evidence that conditions have weakened in most areas, but particularly for the youth of Nunavut among whom the next generation of Inuit leaders must be found.
 
Ironically, the federal government recently announced the creation of a new federal department called the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (Can-Nor) and its major goal is to provide the “foundation for a prosperous economic future for those who live, work, and support their families in the north.”

Given the huge challenges of establishing quality housing, food security, social well being, suicide, and personal health conditions, it is not apparent that another federal economic development program is the right kind of vehicle to deal with the tragic social circumstances in which a large percentage of Nunavummiut live. Given the strength of the cries for help that emerge from this study, it might be a good time to rethink the objectives of Can-Nor and bring them more in line with the needs of the people.

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa. He worked on the creation of Nunavut during 1999 (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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